NC city cost-of-living rise could pose problems for entry-level first responders

"First responders should have the ability to find housing and live where they work," a representative for the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County workforce housing committee said

Krys Merryman
Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

WILMINGTON, N.C. — As the cost of living rises in the Wilmington area, affordability has become an issue.

It's also a concern for those who ensure public safety who are paid at the current entry-level salary.

"But yes, living in the city limits on 35-39k is a challenge," Wilmington councilman Neil Anderson said. "Fortunately, most firemen have another source of income (levels vary of course) and many have spouses that work as well." (Photo/Getty Images)

To figure out whether someone can "afford" rent or buying a home, a simple rule is used.

"To figure out housing affordability for different industries, it is commonly accepted to use 30% of an individual's gross monthly household income," said New Hanover County Chief Communications Officer Jessica Loeper.

For example, someone earning a $39,315 salary, which is the entry-level wage for a New Hanover County telecommunicator, could afford monthly rent at $982 and the purchase price for a home at $145,000 including utilities without being housing cost-burdened, Loeper said.

"HUD defines cost-burdened families as those who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care," Loeper said.

For a Wilmington Police Department Officer, the entry-level salary is $38,984 and $35,642 for a City of Wilmington firefighter, according to City of Wilmington Clerk Penny Spicer-Sidbury.

According to New Hanover County Public Information Officer Lt. Jerry Brewer, the entry-level wage for a New Hanover County Sheriff's Deputy is $37,000.

When asked what the entry-level wage for an emergency medical services (EMS) paramedic is for New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Julian March, New Hanover Regional Medical Center's media relations coordinator, said as a matter of corporate policy, the hospital does not publicly release wage information. However, March said the hospital's minimum wage is $15 per hour.

Wilmington councilman Neil Anderson said he knows the fire department's schedule is set up to allow firefighters to work another job if desired.

"Most do and many are entrepreneurs that run their own business," Anderson said.

He said a lot of firefighters have additional jobs, so they have a good career transition when they retire from the department.

"But yes, living in the city limits on 35-39k is a challenge," Anderson said. "Fortunately, most firemen have another source of income (levels vary of course) and many have spouses that work as well."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of the most recent 2019 data, the median household income in Wilmington was $47,580.

About half of the households in Wilmington are "renter-occupied," according to RENTCafe.

According to RENTCafe, the average rent as of April for an apartment in Wilmington is $1,256, which is a 6% increase compared to 2020 for a 959 sq. ft. apartment.

According to the website, 22% of the apartments in Wilmington fall in the "affordable" range for first responders. Comparing Wilmington to other larger cities in North Carolina, the average rent is about the same as in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, and more than Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The average sale price as of April for a home in New Hanover County for a single-family home, townhouse, condominium or manufactured home is just under $400,000, which is 16.1% more than in 2020, according to Cape Fear REALTORS.

"This is an issue we are dealing with and trying to deal with as it's getting harder and harder," said Tom Gale, president of Cape Fear REALTORs and representative for the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County workforce housing committee.

Gale said Wilmington is in a market where a lot of people are moving to and the increasing demand cannot compete with the supply, which significantly increases the cost of land. He said the pandemic has also caused a disruption in supply, which leads to the increase in cost of supplies such as lumber.

"Pender and Brunswick are definitely more affordable areas," Gales said. "First responders should have the ability to find housing and live where they work. We are looking at what works best here compared to other surrounding cities. I have a passion to help solve this problem."

County wages are determined by the human resources department, at the direction of county management and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, and New Hanover County works hard to ensure that employees' pay is fair and competitive and includes healthcare coverage, paid leave options and many other benefits, Loeper said.

"New Hanover County employees are the best, and they work so hard to serve our community," said New Hanover Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman. "I am in awe of their commitment, and I have been pleased with how much our county government prioritizes employees to provide fair wages with really great benefits."

Back in 2018, the county increased the minimum wage of all employees to $15 an hour and that minimum wage is increasing even more in the upcoming budget to $15.30, Olson-Boseman said.

"I think if you ask any Commissioner you will hear the same thing: we are committed to our employees and ensuring they have the resources they need to do their jobs well and receive a competitive and fair salary for the work they do every day in our community," Olson-Boseman said.

Olson-Boseman said commissioners realize there is an affordable housing gap for many in New Hanover County.

"So that is why the Board of Commissioners and City Council are working together to take action to help improve the availability and attainability of affordable housing," Olson-Boseman said.

She said the county is going to be implementing a workforce rental assistance program this year through the use of American Rescue Plan funding for residents who are 60 to 120% of AMI (area median income). The county is partnering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to donate land and fund infrastructure needs — so that their cost of building can be decreased, and are planning to fund future water and sewer extensions in the county to support the creation of affordable housing.

"We will also have additional initiatives that come out of our joint partnership and work with the city, and we will be talking about that more at our joint meeting next week on June 8," Olson-Boseman said. "All of these collaborative and combined efforts are going to be important to move toward sustainable and effective solutions for affordable housing in our community."

In the New Hanover County Fiscal Year 2022 recommended budget, there is a line item for another pay and classification study that will review and ensure internal pay equity and external competitiveness for all of the positions within the county, Loeper said.

Also in the recommended budget, employees are proposed to receive a market pay increase in the amount of $1,583 or 2.9% of the salary — whichever is greater, and also a merit pool of one percent based on an employee's performance.

Clayton Roberts, assistant human resources director for the City of Wilmington, said it also "strives to provide competitive wages and benefits to its employees with a goal of attracting and retaining top talent."

Roberts said the city held off on doing a compensation study last year due to COVID-19 and all of the uncertainties with the economy.

"However, now that the economy is gaining steam and things are opening up, we have decided to start a new compensation study later this year, with the goal of incorporating any type of salary adjustments into the FY22 budget process," Roberts said.

According to Roberts, it is also important to look at other benefits that the city provides to public safety employees, besides just a paycheck. He said some of the additional benefits include:

— Automatic contributions to a 401K or 457 account (9.5% for police and up to 10.5% for fire)

— Educational Incentives for fire and police ($1,000 for Associate's Degree and $2,000 for Bachelor's Degree)

— Six weeks paid parental leave

— Paid sick and vacation leave

— Police are provided with take-home vehicles

"Again, we are regularly looking at market data and are making recommendations to ensure our compensation and benefits remain competitive and we are able to reward employees for the critical services that they provide to the citizens of Wilmington," said Roberts.


(c)2021 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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